For more than a century, a successful archetype in newspaper comics has been the child-focused strip. The honors list is exceedingly long and includes The Yellow Kid, The Katzenjammer Kids, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Buster Brown, Barnaby, Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes.
Yet if I had to choose a true doyen of the children’s comic strip, it would be Skippy in a heartbeat. In 1923, Percy Crosby started drawing the hilarious adventures of Skippy Skimmer and his pals for Life magazine. By the time it became a syndicated strip two years later, it had caught the American public by storm.
Crosby was a superb cartoonist. His humor touched on everything from a child’s view of the world to political commentary. Skippy quickly transformed into a media empire, spawning an Academy Award-winning film, a radio serial and truckloads of merchandise. Great cartoonists who followed Crosby, including Charles M. Schulz and Walt Kelly, considered the strip’s astonishing beauty and wide-ranging appeal as important inspirations for their own work.
Now, more people will discover this important strip. IDW Publishing, through its arrangement with the Library of American Comics, will be reprinting Skippy’s entire run of daily and color strips. The inaugural edition, “Skippy Daily Comics Vol. 1: 1925-1927,” is a visually stunning work that could be displayed in personal libraries and on coffee tables. Skippy has long been viewed as the gold standard of children’s comics, and IDW’s ambitious project will create a permanent record for all to see and enjoy.
Jared Gardner, one of the volume’s co-editors (along with Dean Mullaney), wrote the first chapter detailing Crosby’s life and creative vision. Crosby was born on Dec. 8, 1891, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and his family eventually moved to “a pastoral retreat” in Richmond Hill. His early years were described as “idyllic,” and he was viewed as “popular and social, a born leader of men.” Crosby’s mother introduced him to literature and music, and his father’s store provided him with plenty of art supplies.
After his father developed “crippling arthritis,” the family’s financial fortunes slipped. So Crosby started his journey into the world of cartooning. Mr. Gardner said Crosby’s decision to turn “to comics was not surprising. [H]e had already earned his first dime at age twelve by selling a traced cover of the Saturday Evening Post to a Chinese laundryman in the neighborhood.” Even so, there was a notable difference: “Unlike other would-be cartoonists Percy experienced support for his ambitions from his parents, who not only shared his creative temperament but also saw in cartooning a viable career path for an ambitious young man.”
Crosby’s first regular job would be at the socialist newspaper The Call. While he “knew little about socialism” and was “no socialist himself,” he became a popular attraction at the paper, which called him “the great crusader, Comrade Crosby.” (The cartoonist would gradually drift into a more conservative, anti-communist political position.) He would join the New York World in 1911 and started his first daily strip, Babyettes. Along with his other early attempts — including Back O’ The Flats, Beany and the Gang and The Clancy Kids — there were flashes of brilliance and a wide-ranging acceptance of his talent.
Crosby got his big break while working for the Fresh Air Fund and Life magazine. In time, he developed a memorable main character and sold the idea to graphic artist Charles Dana Gibson, “who had long recognized Crosby as one of the most talented cartoonists in his magazine’s pages.” On March 15, 1923, Skippy was born. It would remain a staple of reading pleasure for adults and children until 1945.
Exploring Skippy’s first years as a syndicated daily strip is a joy to behold. Like many old comic strips, the quaint language is a combination of broken English and copious amounts of jibberish. There is plenty of mischief, humor and a fistfight or two. (Boys will be boys, after all.) Authority figures are taken with a grain of salt. Excursions to movies, to fishing holes and with girls frequently occur.
But it’s the stunning artwork that truly makes Skippy stand out. Crosby’s attention to detail boggles the mind. Whether they are drops of rain or children on the run, the hand-drawn images often seem to come to life. The beautifully drawn scenes of middle America in the early 20th century stand the test of time as Skippy Skimmer’s daily playground.
Alas, the road Crosby traveled was not always paved with gold. The cartoonist grew increasingly distrustful of government, business and authority. He went to war with Rosefield Packing Co. Ltd.’s Skippy Peanut Butter over copyright restrictions. He was institutionalized as a paranoid schizophrenic in 1948 and died in an asylum in 1964.
Fortunately, Crosby’s imaginary world of Skippy and his friends remains a wonderful place for children to roam, develop and grow. That is a fitting tribute to the greatest children’s comic strip, ever.
• Michael Taube, a regular contributor to The Washington Times, is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.